Friday, July 18, 2008

Blueprints or Houses?

Consider this story:

As her daughter’s birthday neared, a birthday that meant the daughter was eligible for her driver’s license, the mother decided she would send her daughter to driving school in order for the daughter to be prepared for the driving test, and even more importantly, for driving on the road. Once enrolled in Warriner’s School of Driving, the daughter spent six weeks in classes. In those classes, students were instructed in disassembling a car engine and naming all the parts. The job was difficult, but the daughter worked hard and ultimately passed the course with top grades.

On her birthday, the daughter went to the DMV and applied for her license. As the mother watched her daughter leave the parking lot for the driving test, she was proud and confident she had helped her child be well prepared for this important day. But the daughter returned in just a few minutes, walking back toward the mother and crying.

“What is wrong?” the mother exclaimed.

“Ma’am,” the man giving the test explained, “your daughter can’t drive at all! It’s like she has never even driven a car before. . .”

The experience of writers and teachers of writing always point to one fact about learning to write: You have to write often to grow as a writer. Research also shows that other strategies, such as isolated grammar or vocabulary lessons, do not help writers grow; in fact, some traditional activities we do in English classes actually impact the writing abilities of students negatively.

Lou LaBrant, born in 1888 and having taught from 1906 until 1971, once argued: “Knowing about writing and its parts does not bring it about, just as owning a blueprint does not give you a house” (256). If our goal is writing, then we should not spend too much time taking the language apart and naming all of those parts—or we will be as disappointed as the mother and daughter above.

As a student or scholar, a writer must develop both a sense of the blueprint and the completed house, to be metaphorical for a moment. The system that drives meaning in language use is both unconscious and conscious in any user of the language. The more aware we are of the system, the more likely we are to use that language with empowerment. If we remain inexpert and unconscious of language, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to be restricted, to be controlled by the language and by others who have a greater expertise and awareness of the language than we have.

When we as students and scholars create original compositions, we are entering either into a situation whereby we will be evaluated or a situation whereby our writing will be published—or rejected. In either case, writing as a student or scholar involves exposing our work to the judgment of others. The responsibility of both the student and the scholar is to be aware of the guidelines, the conventions, upon which those judgments will be based. Teachers, instructors, and professors often provide prompts guiding student essays along with rubrics that outline for students the basis for specific grades being assigned. Scholars submitting work for publication must navigate guidelines for writers of the publication being considered. Within those guidelines, scholars are often required to conform to specific style sheets (MLA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style, and others, for example) and even to unique requirements of that publication.

Consider some examples of on-line writer’s guidelines for scholarly journals:

English Journal—Primary journal for English teachers from middle school through college. Visit the following link, and then select the link “EJ Information for Authors” (also visit “Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language”):

Educational Leadership—Major journal for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Visit the following link:


Phi Delta Kappan—Major journal for Phi Delta Kappa International. Visit the following link:

While students and scholars are ultimately concerned with building houses, they must also be aware of the blueprints that provide the concepts upon which the real thing is built.


“Grammar” as a term creates many problems—and probably makes many people flinch, ducking the hypothetical hand of the abusive English teacher poised always to swat us when we make an “error.” Yet, grammar is simply the term for the system that language follows when humans communicate. Before writers can evolve fully as writers, they must spend some time and energy growing in their awareness of language and the system that drives it.

First, to become a healthy and effective writer, you must back up and reset your hard-drive, erase the many misconceptions you have about language and reformat your disk space. To do that, let’s consider a common misconception about language and writing before turning to rethinking both language and writing.

Misconception: Grammar is a set of rules that govern the right and wrong uses of language. (This is called a “prescriptive” view of grammar.)

Reality: Grammar is the description of the most recent set of conventions that guide language use. Language is always in a state of flux; language changes, and that change is both natural and healthy. Language use is guided by conventional guidelines that contribute to more effective communication. For example, users of the language agree about spelling (although spelling changes: “through” is becoming “thru,” for example, and “today” once was “to-day”) so that we all think about the same basic animal when someone writes “dog.” Writers and speakers who wish to be read and heard with some level of respect must be aware of the conventions of the situation and audience, and then must decide how fully to conform to those conventions (realizing that not conforming increases the risk of harsh judgment).

Now, how should students and scholars rethink language and writing? The most important change concerns how we view language. If we persist in believing language is governed by “rules,” then we are abdicating our power over our most human quality, language, to some Other who then dictates how we use an intimate performance that is us.

Language is conventional, not bound to rules. Language is in a constant state of flux, not a fixed thing. And these facts of language contribute to a new view of writing and being a writer.

In school, we have often relinquished the power over our language to someone else, usually the teacher who also holds the power of some grammar book. Also in school, we have relinquished the power of writing to the teacher—someone who decides what we write, how we write it, and even what we say in that writing. One fact of being a student is that the control over writing may not be something a student can demand. Nonetheless, students and scholars should practice attitudes toward language and writing that support their own empowerment as writers.

One such practice is becoming aware and then expert in the conventions of language.

Why Conventional Language?

Academic and scholarly writing is conventional language because students and scholars, by choice to some degree, enter into situations that involve evaluation based on some conventions guiding the situation. For students, the evaluation is a grade leading to course credit and a diploma or degree of some kind; for scholars, the evaluation is publication—or rejection.

Conventions, then, are the specified and implied guidelines governing any unique situation. A common term for the broad conventions of language use in English is Standard English. Standard English, as noted above, should not be viewed as fixed rules, but as the current state of agreements among users of the language in relatively formal situations. (We rarely feel compelled to worry about Standard English among friends and intimates, but we are often held accountable for Standard English in academic settings, work settings, and publication settings.)

Conventions also exist in more narrow situations, such as the conventions we associate with prose and poetry. Prose is primarily composed using sentences and paragraphs while poetry is primarily driven by the formation of lines and stanzas (although poetry still maintains a primary focus on language driven by sentence formation within the line/stanza convention). Other conventions exist for genre as well; “genre” as a term refers to the kind of writing a text generally conforms to. Again, poetry is a type of language and a genre, but prose is an umbrella term for a wide number of genres. Drama, as a genre, can be composed in both verse (poetry) and in prose. Types of genre common in prose writing include many forms of writing; some that most readers have encountered include:

• Journalism (including news stories, sports stories, editorials (Op-Eds), features)

• Literary criticism

• Short stories

• Novels

• Memoirs

• Textbooks

• Screenplays

Of course this list is brief, but most of us could identify easily any of these genres, some even by glancing at the printed page (consider a screenplay). The guidelines that we use (often unconsciously) to identify and distinguish among genres are the conventions guiding that form. Students and scholars must become aware of those conventions so that their writing either works within or against those conventions with purpose.

Courses and other settings that allow students and scholars to practice and grow as writers, then, are ideal circumstances for learning the conventions and practicing both conforming to and working against those conventions in purposeful ways in order to evolve as the writers all students and scholars can be.

While conventions seem to be restrictions on what writers can and should do, a better view of conventions is to see them as something concrete against which a writer can experiment in order to create something powerful and unique to each writer. Conventions provide a framework for writers to discover and refine both their writing and themselves as writers.

Students and scholars should be aware, however, that some conventions are not debatable—such as the guidelines for documentations that govern fair use of sources in a writer’s original text.

Discovering and Refining Yourself as a Writer

Students and scholars, whether in a class setting or on their own, can follow some strategies to discover themselves as writers, and then to refine themselves as writers. Some of the strategies include the following:

• Read widely and often. When you read, develop “reading like a writer” techniques. A writer reads differently than non-writers because writers are always considering more than what the text expresses. Writers consider the following elements of text as models for their own writing:

What the text conveys.

How the writer makes meaning for the reader, noting the craft in the text.

Craft includes techniques and rhetorical strategies such as diction, syntax, figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification), rhythm, rhetorical questions, parallelism, allusion, narration, sound devices (alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, rhyme), dialogue, and a list too long to include here.

• Write often and for a wide variety of purposes, using your reading experiences as a guide for experimentation. Writers should take risks, and then share their writing with audiences that can give the writer feedback. A self-conscious and fearful writer has less chance of evolving than a risk-taker who shares text with others.

• Begin to describe your writing process. What steps do you take to produce text? Then begin to consider how you can refine your writing process to improve as a writer. Also, do not restrict yourself in terms of what counts in the writing process. Some writers read as part of the process, some talk with others, some have to take walks, and some conduct research as a way to prime their writing motor. See some resources for the writing process starting here (and see the menu to the right for additional help):

• Create a network of people to share your writing with; you need to have input if you want to grow as a writer. Writers need to learn how to respond to other writers in ways that help each other grow—not correcting and criticizing, but giving specific input about what works, what doesn’t work, and why in both cases.

Works Cited

LaBrant, Lou. “Writing Is More Than Structure.” English Journal 46.5 (1957): 252–56, 293.